The challenges of effective communication

I’ve always been good at written communication. I’ve learned to do reasonably well with public speaking. Both forms of communication allow me to prepare ahead of time what I want to say and how I want to say it. Even with impromptu public speaking – what we do for “Table Topics” in Toastmasters meetings – I seem to be doing well (according to my fellow Toastmasters), though certainly with plenty of room for improvement.

All of those are one-way communications, though. (There’s a certain amount of feedback to a public speaker in terms of the audience’s body language, but I find it too slight to be of much help, so far.) Where I have difficulties is in two-way communication – conversations in person or on the phone, and participation in group discussions or activities. So when I saw that my company was offering the opportunity to attend a training seminar on “Effective Communication Skills That Improve Work Relationships and Teamwork,” I jumped at the chance.

I spent today attending the seminar, and I’m writing this while it’s fresh on my mind. I am still working through what practical steps I can take to improve my communication, as well as some disappointment that a lot of the content was basic information I already knew. But as the seminar leader pointed out several times, a lot of the principles of effective communication are “common sense – but not common practice.” If I put even one or two principles into practice on a regular basis, I’ll have gained from attending the seminar.

One of the first topics was non-verbal communication. I knew from previous learning opportunities (a class on communication at church, my Toastmasters Competent Communication manual, and probably some long-ago college class on teaching techniques) about the importance of non-verbal communication. I was even very close in my guess in class today about the percentage of our communication that consists of the words themselves. (I guessed 5%, the seminar leader said it was 7%.)

But knowing that non-verbal communication is important doesn’t get me very far. I’m sure that non-verbal communication is a large part of the reason for various people’s impressions of me that I am aloof (or was the word unfriendly?), intellectual (when I’ve barely said anything), or self-assured (me??!!!). But I’m not sure what I’m doing to give those impressions, so it’s hard to know how to change.

I tried asking the seminar leader (George) about this, citing the example of being told I appeared self-assured when I felt anything but. Apparently I didn’t communicate my concern well, because George said he didn’t understand what I was getting at. In a demonstration of active listening, however, he rephrased what he thought I had said and asked if it was correct. It was, which I told him, and let the subject drop. I guess I need to talk with people who interact with me regularly to find out what I need to know.

The next topic was listening skills. I’ve been told I’m a good listener; the fact that I find it easier to be quiet and let other people talk helps with this. Apparently most of us think we’re much better listeners than we really are, however. Most of us in the class today estimated our listening skills at between 60 and 75%. George told us that experts in the field say the average person scores a dismal 25%. Even considering that the kind of people who sign up for a class in Effective Communications (assuming that the others, like me, requested to take the class rather than being sent there by their supervisors) may be working at the skill more than others, it sounds like a lot of us aren’t doing nearly as well as we think we are.

I had hoped, at this point, for a class activity to practice active listening. I’m sure I had listened well enough during George’s introduction to know that he had planned practice sessions of some sort during the afternoon. He did involve all of us in the discussion, so it’s not like he did all the talking while we sat and took notes. But the only structured activities were all near the beginning of the seminar, before he had covered much of anything for us to practice.

Next, we looked at different communications styles. I didn’t immediately remember having learned about the DISC behavioral model, though I was pretty sure it was something my husband had talked about from one of his continuing education classes (for his work as pastor). I could immediately predict, however, just from the names of the styles, that I would fall under either Stability or Compliance. I certainly knew I wouldn’t be a Dominance or Intuitor.

(George didn’t use all the same labels as the websites I have looked at about DISC, but Steadiness and Stability are pretty much the same thing in this context. Another site describes those same four styles as Controller, Promoter, Supporter, and Analyzer, which seem like somewhat more descriptive labels, if not as easy to remember)

After taking the quiz, I discovered that I scored exactly the same for Stability and Compliance – and vaguely remembered having had the same outcome previously. The characteristics of these two styles describe me very well – agreeable, respectful, cautious, industrious, serious, exacting. And on the “liabilities” side (what George described as how people act when under stress), I am fearful of risk-taking, fearful of imperfection (that’s all the time, though, not just in times of stress – or does that mean I’m always under stress?), and don’t show feelings or notice others’ feelings (maybe why I get thought of as aloof).

George emphasized that one style is not better or worse than another. Teams need the strengths of each of the different styles to balance out the others. But people of each style also need to learn how to “style flex” – to adapt their style to the task at hand and to the style of the people they are dealing with.

I have learned, over the past couple years, to adapt to the communication style of a co-worker who is probably a mix of Controller and Analyzer (to use the terms that seem more descriptive, as to say she’s a mix of Dominance and Compliance does not seem to make sense). Be efficient, be direct, be brief, stick to business.

I found I could do it easily, once I let my Analyzer side take over instead of my Supporter side. But my Supporter side (Steadiness, Stability) still wishes for more small talk, not to be all business. (A fact that surprises me, as I never have thought of myself as being big on small talk.)

The final topic on our agenda today was to come up with action steps to improve our communication skills. During the minute allocated for that in the seminar (George had promised to get us out by 3:30 and he did), all I could come up with was to work on active listening.

I have plenty of opportunities to practice listening, sitting at the front desk. Sometimes I do well, giving the person my full attention. Other times I find myself splitting my attention between the person and the work I was doing, trying to give a non-verbal message that it’s not a good time to talk. 

When I asked George about this during break, he suggested telling the person I could get back with them within a specified time frame. I’m sure that would be a better way to communicate, but it will take some effort for me to do that the first time. And neither of my communication styles likes change.

I also need to figure out what my supervisor’s communication style is. George said we should note the communication styles of our co-workers, especially our bosses – and I realized with surprise that after four months reporting to someone (after the latest reorganization), I really have little idea what he’s like (other than that he trusts us to get our work done without much involvement from him).

It also occurs to me that I really don’t do too badly with communicating once I get started. I just have a great deal of trouble getting myself into a context for communicating. With a few exceptions of people I’ve gotten to know, I don’t know when it’s OK to stop by someone’s desk and chat for a minute or when that would be an unwelcome intrusion.

I hate having to schedule meetings, especially when it’s something that needs all of five minutes with one other person to get a question answered. But that seems to be the expectation with some people – if you want some of their time, it has to be on the calendar.

Often, it seems like the most worthwhile things I learn are those I wasn’t looking for, that just happen to come up. But you can’t schedule a meeting to learn those things. And I have no idea how to bring about the kind of communication that would make those learning moments happen more often.

But I suppose if I work on one or two of the skills from the seminar at a time, it’s got to make some improvements. And maybe that will lead to other opportunities. Even if it means having to schedule some meetings.


2 Responses to The challenges of effective communication

  1. modestypress says:

    I’ve never studied the topics and terminology you discuss here, and at this point in my life, probably never will. Today, just to be ornery, I attended the local Republican Presidential caucus. I did not pretend to be a religious believer and I did not pretend to be a Republican, but I did not make a big deal about it. I did advocate a bit for people not to sign the current attempt to repeal the recently passed Washington state homosexual marriage law.

    The general trend was libertarian and in favor of Ron Paul at the meeting I attended. I straw voted for Gary Johnson. I am not a libertarian, but I am sympathetic to the point of view. I think Johnson is a better choice than Paul, but no one agreed with me and I did not push the issue. Romney seems to be carrying our state. Republicans are beginning to realize that if they fall too much in love with religious zealots, they will not have much chance to win the election.

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